to Math and Science
our kids get back into the swing of school, teachers, parents
and business leaders need to remind our young people that math
and science education is as vital to their future as it is to
ours. An amazing paradox has grown up in recent years between
the kind of society we live in and the skills that are essential
to its success. Young people, in particular, have become rabid
consumers of all things technological–from Internet
chat rooms, to cell phones, CDs and DVDs–yet they are
increasingly out-of-step with the math and science skills that
produce these wonders.
A look at some numbers illustrates that this technical skills
gap is growing. The National Commission on Mathematics and Science
Teaching for the 21st Century revealed that by 2008, the technology-driven
economy will add 5.6 million jobs in the health sciences and
computer industries that require science and mathematics skills.
Meanwhile, more tech workers are retiring and precious few are
ready to take their place. Consequently, the US has dropped
from third to thirteenth in the world in terms of the proportion
of 24 year-olds who hold natural science or engineering degrees.
While thousands of essential technology jobs remain vacant,
our nation’s technology needs continue to grow–for
everything from ensuring adequate food and water supplies to
new medical treatments, environmental protection and national
security. We are on the threshold of unprecedented advances
in our understanding and application of technology itself, which
will create career opportunities for science and math students
that we cannot even imagine today.
Where will the technical specialists come from to power this
future? And why, in these economically uncertain times, aren’t
more students pursuing studies that will lead them to these
A major part of the answer lies in the fact that too many of
our young people are not encouraged in the middle grades to
take advanced math and science courses. Consequently, they are
ill-equipped to take college courses leading to careers in science,
math and engineering.
This de-emphasis of math and science falls especially upon women
and minorities. As a result, while women make up 50 percent
of the work force and 30 percent of doctors and lawyers, fewer
than 10 percent of engineers are women. And the number of women
earning bachelor’s degrees in the highly marketable computer-science
field has dropped from 37 to 28 percent over the past eight
years. Similarly, African-American enrollments in engineering
are down by 10 percent over the last 10 years, and only 5 percent
of the nation’s engineers are black. Taken together, the
black, Hispanic, and native-American communities constitute
only about 6 percent of the two million scientists and engineers
in the United States.
These numbers, and the diversity and career issues they represent,
should deeply concern all of us. However, there are some hopeful
signs on the horizon. One is the “Tech Talent Act”
passed recently by the House of Representatives that authorizes
$390 million over the next five years for science, math, engineering,
and technology programs. This crucial bill would strengthen
programs at the National Science Foundation to expand the number
of U.S. students majoring in these disciplines. This legislation
should be swiftly enacted.
We can all do a number of things to improve this picture. We
must support national advocacy, research, and policy organizations
working to redress the under-representation of women and minorities
in technical careers. These groups need both funding and volunteers.
And companies must focus upon attracting and retaining women
and minorities in IT positions.
But most of all, parents, teachers, business leaders–all
of us must encourage and influence our children to find rich
and rewarding careers in math and the sciences. Tell them and
teach them about the exciting opportunities that await them.
Our nation’s future depends upon this effort, an effort
that we all must take personally.#
Janet Perna, general manager of Data Management Solutions
for IBM Software, was formerly a math teacher.
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